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‘PlanetSide 2’ brings the lessons of its predecessor to eSports engagements

PlanetSide 2 Nexus Battle Island

PlanetSide 2 is poised for an eSports embrace. The massively multiplayer shooter has been out for months now on PC, and it’s headed to PlayStation 4 as well. More importantly, its developers at Sony Online Entertainment have been working with Major League Gaming—the premiere eSports league—to get the game into tip-top competitive shape.

The latest free expansion for the free-to-play shooter adds a new map type called Battle Islands that SOE hopes will allow the game to assimilate smoothly into MLG tournament play without alienating the core player base that’s used to the game’s massively multiplayer gameplay. PlanetSide 2 is an open-ended first-person shooter built around an open world in which three competing factions vie for control. The design isn’t exactly suitable for MLG’s small-team play.

The idea with Battle Islands is to bring the epic feel of the main game into the more intimate atmosphere of an MLG match-up. These new areas cap off at 96 players in MLG matches, 48 to a side, and they feature shorter play times than the typical weeks-long engagement in vanilla PlanetSide 2The new maps will also be incorporated directly into the enormous, organic worlds occupied by PlanetSide 2‘s everyday players. SOE also that the reduced scale of the new areas will bring back certain strategic options that were an aspect of the original PlanetSide.

How exactly will the new, smaller maps fit in with the existing MMO gameplay of PlanetSide 2? Where is the game going in the future and when exactly will we see it onstage at MLG events next to Call of Duty, League of Legends, and StarCraft 2? We caught up with the game’s creative director Matthey Higby at the 2013 Major League Gaming Spring Championship to find out.

So what are you guys showing off today?

The main thing that we’re doing here is we kind of have a show match going. We flew out some guys who are basically the leaders of three of the top outfits, and they were sort of playing against each other. We’re not really showing anything specific today, but tomorrow and the next day we’ll be revealing our Battle Islands for the first time. The Battle Island is a new map that we’re creating. We’re going to be creating three of them. And they’re going to be part of our MMO game. They’ll be new, smaller-scale combat areas for people to fight in. Smaller than the 64-square-kilometer 2,000-player maps that we have right now. So more like four square kilometers and designed for a couple hundred players rather than thousands. And those maps will also be used for our competitive mode. So when we do move into MLG and do more eSports-focused stuff, those maps will be where we have teams of 48 fighting against each other.

PlanetSide 2 Nexus Battle Island 3

How involved is MLG in the development of that kind of thing?

I mean, we knew what we needed. Like I was mentioning to you, we’re really big eSports fans, so we knew what kind of needed to happen to make PlanetSide into an esport. And so we… decided that we wanted to do 48-on-48 so we’d still have large scale but it was a little bit more manageable. It kind of went from there. But no, the MLG guys are actually really helpful just because they understand the nuances of what it takes to be able to create a good viewership experience, in terms of pacing and in terms of what your progression needs to be. Really, eSports in so many ways is about being able to create a compelling narrative and build a really interesting sort of storyline around players or around teams. And so they’ve really helped us out with being able to define what we need to do to be successful in that. They haven’t really come and said, ‘Okay, this is what you need. You need a score that works like this,’ or anything like that. I mean it’s a bit more of a guidance process than a partnership I think.

Besides the size of the new maps, how else will the game tuned to eSports gameplay?

“Really, eSports… is about being able to create a compelling narrative and build a really interesting sort of storyline around players or around teams.”

So the Battle Islands are… designed in a really balanced way. So rather than our other maps, which are a little bit more organic, they were set up so that they had equal distance between different bases—like, not 100 percent symmetrical, but closer than our normal maps are, so that they have flow that is a little bit more fair. We wanted them to be really competitive maps and designed from the get-go to allow for that kind of fairness. So that’s sort of the main thing. Instead of having hundreds of facilities on them, I think our one Battle Island right now has 11 facilities on it. And it’s set up so that instead of it being a three-way fight, like most of our other continents are set up where each empire has a foothold on the continent so they can all participate in fighting there at all times, these are all set up as two-ways.

How do you determine what factions are on the map?

It’ll be different. So when people are playing for MLG matches, we’re going to instance it and we’re going to have it off on its own server somewhere. We’re going to zone people to it specifically and they’re going to be fighting in a sequestered mode. When it’s in the MMO game, they’re going to be kind of go-betweens between major continents. And what we’re looking to do with these is help facilitate continent connections and cross-continent conquest. So when you’re fighting on Amerish and you want to get to Esamir, you can either go through Hossin, which is our next continent that we’re building—our next full continent that we’re building—or you can go through one of the Battle Islands on the side. So it just gives you another route to be able to traverse and gain conquests.

PlanetSide 2 Nexus Battle Island 4

How many Battle Islands will there ultimately be?

We’re going to build three, so we’re going to have three different Battle Islands. The one that we’re showing now is called Nexus. That’s kind of the first one. And then we’re working on another one called Desolation right now. They’re going to be staggered. But when they all go into the game world, we’ll have seven maps in total. So we’ll have three Battle Islands and four full continents, which will give us the ability to support about 10,000 players on one server, which is a shitload.

You know, it’ll be really cool because—players in the original PlanetSide, one of the things that they really loved about that game is that it had cross-continental conquests. When you capture one continent, you can push everybody off of it and move to the next one, and it’s sort of they can’t get back this way unless they push you back the other direction, you know? So you almost had this tug-of-war gameplay going from continent to continent. And in PlanetSide 2 right now we have footholds where everybody can be fighting on each one of the three continents at all times. And once we introduce Hossin and these Battle Islands, we’re actually going to be creating our continental conquest gameplay. So with three continents it’s really hard for us to do it because you would end up having people just fighting on the borders all the time. Because we have three empires, they would just be constantly at the intersection points between the continents and it wouldn’t be very fun. But with a fourth continent in the middle and the Battle Islands that allow people to sort of circumvent around, we feel like we can do a really good job of implementing that.

With empires flanking each other, pincer attacks, etc.

“Once we introduce Hossin and these Battle Islands, we’re actually going to be creating our continental conquest gameplay.”

Right. And small outfits and smaller groups of players who’ve been wanting to be able to figure out tactical ways that they can progress the game without having to have 500 dudes to accomplish a goal in one of our larger maps are going to be really happy about this because they’re going to be able to open up these new routes, to be able to flank around and access different continents. So you might need to have a massive push of people to be able to conquest across Hossin, but if you want to go to Nexus, it’s going to be a smaller continent, and just being a platoon there might be enough for you to be able to carve a route out and get around that way. So we think that’s going to be really interesting, and it will really help us be able to kind of fulfill the promise of the strategic session-to-session type of gameplay that Planetside 1 was always really, really good at, and right now PlanetSide 2 has not really fully moved into.

Because Planetside 1 had more continents?

Planetside 1 launched with significantly more continents. Our continents we really decided from the get-go that we wanted to handcraft and make sure that they felt like they were really high fidelity everywhere, which naturally means that making a map in our game—when you’re making 64 square kilometers of handcrafted map, it’s fucking time-consuming. I mean, our maps take anywhere from eight to ten months to make. So we haven’t been able to make all twelve of them that the original Planetside had, you know? We launched with three and we’ve been working on the fourth since before launch. And it’s still not finished. So with these smaller Battle Islands we can actually start fleshing out that continental conquest and then as we create new maps we can sort of adjust the way that they’re linked together and it’ll really give us a lot of ability to, like I said, deliver on that promise that we’ve sort of never been able to deliver that.

PlanetSide 2 Nexus Battle Island 2

So they’ll be integrated into the main MMO gameplay, but also then segregated specifically for competitive play when necessary?

That’s right. And we’re going to be creating specific win/loss conditions. So we have a system in our game called “alerts,” like an alert will pop up and it will say “Capture Esamir within the time limit,” something like that. We’ll have those on the Battle Island that basically says you have thirty minutes to capture all the points, and whoever captures all the points in 30 minutes will win the thing immediately, or at the end of it it will say, “Okay, these guys have 60 percent, they win this match.” So we’re really being able to leverage a lot of the things that we’re building for the massively multiplayer game into our eSports game, rather than doing the typical mistake, which is spending a shitload of time trying to develop custom eSports-related stuff at the kind of expense of developing for your main game. So all of our eSports design is basically all reinforcing the massively multiplayer game too.

So the outfits that really want to participate with eSports, their ability to participate in eSports is going to be based on their outfits’ accomplishments with the massively multiplayer game. So we’re going to have outfit leaderboards, and if you want to go and play eSports, well, you’ve going to have to make sure that your outfit is constantly on the top of the leaderboard, and being on the top of the leaderboard means participating in the massively multiplayer gameplay. So we don’t have these really top-end, like, league players just suddenly evaporating from the massively multiplayer game because they’re off queuing for an instance game mode all the time, you know? Their ability to compete is really based on their ability to be successful within the MMO. And then once they are, then we set up our brackets and we say, “Okay, this Thursday is a match between this outfit from this server and this outfit from this other server, and we set up an instance zone for them to go to and fight that’s sequestered and allows them to have a completely fair fight, and it doesn’t just pull all the talented players away all the time from the MMO game.

So how long until you guys are up on the big stages?

It’s going to be a while. [We’re] not trying to jump into this like fucking right into the deep end. We’re looking at kind of a longer-term—we’re six months post-launch right now. I guess we’re seven months post-launch. In that time we’ve been spending most of our time improving the core game, making the game a lot better. We haven’t really been spending a ton of time making eSports-specific stuff. And it’s a common misconception amongst some of our players, that we’re spending a lot of time making eSports-specific stuff. We’re not. All the things that we’re building right now all enhance our MMO game too. And at a certain point we’re going to have enough of that stuff that we can build a competitive gameplay mode off of it without having to spend a bunch of time trying to build that, without spending time dedicated to building just for eSports specifically. We don’t want to do that. We want to be making sure that whatever we’re building, we are maximizing what we can get out of the MMO game from it, not just creating one-off stuff just for eSports.

So, you know, I don’t really know. Our timeline right now looks like we might have an actual competitive event at the [November] MLG, but actually having players playing through qualifiers and going through a more structured, bracketed tournament structure is probably something that you’ll see in maybe 2014, but not this year. Not right away. Because we have so much to do just to solidify the core game and make our core game better right now, and that’s really where most of the team’s focus is.

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